A pithy retelling of Europe’s darkest days

Hellish: A German casualty at El Alamein 

Professor Norman Stone has achieved the impossible; he has somehow written a comprehensive history of the Second World War in just under 200 pages, summarising the entire conflict while leaving out nothing of importance and bringing his lifetime of study of the subject to bear in a witty, incisive and immensely readable way. Having struggled to write a history of the same war in fewer than 700 pages myself a couple of years ago, I am still being taught lessons by Stone a full three decades after he was my history supervisor at Cambridge.

The Second World War matters to the author in a more visceral way than to most historians of the subject, of whom there has certainly been no dearth in recent years. His father read law at Glasgow University before joining the RAF and taking part in the Battle of Britain, serving in the City of Glasgow 602 squadron. The battle won, as soon as he could be spared he was taken out of the front line for the vitally important task of training pilots, and it was while doing this that he was killed in a plane crash in Wales in February 1942. Stone still has his father’s compass. This book is dedicated to his father’s brother-officers, who raised the money to pay for his education. “It was,” as Norman writes, “a good world”.

It was to save that good world that Britain went to war against Adolf Hitler, whose biography Stone wrote in 1980. The joy of this book is that it is written in precisely the conversational style of one of his immensely entertaining university tutorials, complete with the jokes and aperçus. The NSDAP (Nazi) party he translates, for example, as “the National (meaning ‘anti-foreign’) Socialist (meaning ‘stealing’) German (meaning ‘anti-Semitic’) Workers (meaning ‘lower-middle-class’) Party”.

In the first chapter we learn of the failure of the League of Nations, “that had specially been devised to give President Woodrow Wilson a platform from which to moralise at everybody”, of the collapse of the Weimar Republic after the 1932 election—apart from voting to dissolve itself, the Reichstag only managed one other “yea” vote, which was to deprive women civil servants of security of tenure—and of the triumph of appeasement in the West. The author makes the best possible case for reactionary politics, which is that “Churchill was reactionary, and true reactionaries detested Adolf Hitler, the most revolutionary figure in German history”.

Stone is at his best when making sweeping generalisations that seem like glib aphorisms until looked at more closely, when they turn out to be insightful and true. “Poland was the martyr of the Second World War, as Great Britain was the hero, and the United States the victor,” he writes. “As with many martyrs, Poland invited her fate.” The other martyr, the Soviet Union, even more enthusiastically embraced its fate with its suicidally stupid Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in the early hours of August 24, 1939. “The last train bearing the goods with which Stalin proposed to placate Hitler trundled with a whistle on the railway bridge over the River Bug at Brest-Litovsk at 2am on June 22, 1941,” this book notes. “The German attack came at 3am. A German soldier with a Communist background swam the river and warned the Russians what was coming. He was shot.” 

As for the other would-be martyr of the conflict: “The French tiptoed from the Maginot Line, and when fired upon, tiptoed back.” The initial contribution from the British was hardly more impressive, as Stone notes: “As in 1914, there would be a skirling of pipes at the gangplank in Boulogne, and a few Scottish regiments would arrive with the regimental mascot, a terrier, and a colonel smoking a pipe.” It was only after Dunkirk that the British realised how serious the situation had become, before that “it was a very British start-of-a-war muddle”.

When the crisis came, however, in the words of General Sir Edward Spears: “The British middle classes were not scared, whereas the French bourgeoisie was gibbering with fright.” The demoralisation of Third Republic France didn’t start and end with the bourgeoisie, however; Stone describes the rank and file poilus as “dirty, sullen, cigarette-chewing, and smelling of cheap wine (of which the average Frenchman got through three litres a day, though in fairness it should be added that half of them were peasants, and the water was not reliable)”. They surrendered in droves, and when General Heinz Guderian’s tanks ran out of fuel, they got “gasoline from abandoned French garages, his men milking distressed and abandoned French cows”. 

A master of the illustrative fact, Stone tells us that in aircraft production, “the Germans for once suffered from having been first off the mark, had many competing agencies, and even 17 different research laboratories”, and that when the first jet fighter was ready at Munich in 1945, it “had to be towed onto the field by oxen, to save fuel”. He points out that in the Messerschmitt factory in southern Bavaria, aluminium was used to make ladders for civilian use, whereas it was used in Britain to lighten fighters and give them longer range. This book is studded with surprising and illuminating facts such as these, making it the best short primer on the war written in the last 20 years.

“Hitler was a provincial figure, and had shot far beyond his natural level,” Stone writes of the Führer’s initial victories during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. “Success like this turned his head. A Bismarck or a Churchill could control success of this order, a Hitler could not.” He believes that it was the sheer backwardness of Russia, largely due to Communism-Russians didn’t eat at pre-revolutionary standards again until 1952-that slowed down the German advance. Whereas “Europe had roads, villages, churches, peasant customs, small provincial towns” through which the victorious Wehrmacht could move, Russia was just “after one white plain, another white plain”, as Victor Hugo said of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. There were certainly no abandoned garages at which to refuel.

Stone rightly puts the Eastern Front centre-stage in this book, pointing out that battles like that around Gomel in September 1941 are almost unknown in the West, yet he considers it “the greatest single German victory” of the war, in which Russia lost half a million men. He adds that the over a million Russians who died in the siege of Leningrad were more than Britain and the United States lost combined.

This book is full of excellent summations of character—Bernard Montgomery is described as “peppery, vain, and a man for endless detail”—and the sixth day of the Battle of El Alamein is described as “now hellish—a heat haze, in which flies gathered in huge black clouds over corpses, the wounded, the excrement, with shattered guns and burning trucks or tanks”. The personal, human side of the conflict is never lost. Nor is humour ever far away: we are told of Operation Torch, the huge Anglo-American attack on Vichy France’s North African possessions, that torcher in French means “to wipe a bottom”.  

Not everyone will agree with all the conclusions—the author believes that the war could have ended a year earlier if the cross-Channel attack had been mounted in 1943 rather than 1944, for example, and that German cities should not have been carpet-bombed—but none will doubt that Norman Stone has proved yet again that he is one of the most original, witty and powerful British historians writing today. His father would have been proud, and his father’s comrades certainly got their money’s worth.

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